Green Berets out-fought,
out-thought the Taliban
5th Special Forces Group (Airborne)
By Kirk Spitzer, USA TODAY 01/06/2002 - Updated 11:20 PM ET
The soldiers operated largely in secret, with little direct support or supervision. They wore long hair and beards, lived in unmarked compounds and moved mostly at night. They called in airstrikes from hidden bunkers and shallow trenches, dodged artillery and mortar rounds and, when necessary, traded shots with Taliban soldiers across the frontlines.
John's team, Tiger 03, was credited by task force commanders with killing more than 1,300 Taliban fighters, destroying a total of 50 tanks, anti-aircraft guns, artillery pieces and command and control bunkers. The team helped rout the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorist network in northern Afghanistan and eventually in the capital of Kabul.
While none of John's team has been injured, four other Green Berets have died so far, including Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman, 31, killed Friday in a firefight in eastern Afghanistan. He was the first U.S. soldier to die in hostile fire since the U.S. campaign began here three months ago.
The Afghan operation marks the first time the small but highly trained U.S. special operations forces have been deployed as the main force behind a major conflict. Success in Afghanistan, a treacherous morass of changing political loyalties played out on a lunar-like landscape, could influence the conduct of U.S. military operations for years to come.
Only now is information being released on the extraordinary, clandestine effort mounted by the Green Berets and other special operations forces against the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Interviews with members of Tiger 03 provided new details on how the Green Berets' efforts guided the airstrikes that toppled the Taliban.
John and other members of his team cannot be identified by last name because of military security guidelines. But this USA TODAY reporter was permitted to spend three days last week with team members in Afghanistan, where U.S. soldiers continue to patrol battle areas, assist with humanitarian missions and conduct sensitive military operations that, under Pentagon reporting guidelines, cannot be fully disclosed.
"Those guys did more with less and had a greater impact on the outcome of this war than anyone," Col. John Mulholland, commander of the U.S. special operations task force that was at the center of the campaign, said last week.
Although it was something they had trained for, the success of the mission surprised the team members. "None of us can believe how well it went," Kevin, the team sergeant, said. "When we got here, none of us expected to survive, but it went just about as perfectly as you could hope."
Michael Vickers, a former Green Beret who now is a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, attributes the low U.S. death toll to a reliance on a limited number of Special Forces to call in airstrikes and on Afghan opposition fighters.
U.S. Special Forces "A" teams — usually 12 soldiers each — began arriving in Afghanistan after the U.S. bombing campaign started Oct. 7. Also known as Green Berets, the Special Forces teams are trained to operate behind enemy lines, work with local forces, conduct humanitarian missions and perform sensitive assignments such as working with the CIA.
The Army formed the Special Forces in the 1950s when it determined it needed a small, elite group of soldiers to operate behind enemy lines where they could organize and train local resistance and conduct other kinds of unconventional warfare.
Over the years, the missions of the Green Berets, named for their distinctive headgear, have broadened to include peacetime training of foreign armies and humanitarian and peacekeeping operations. There are now some 7,500 Green Berets, divided into five groups that are trained to operate in specific parts of the world.
Despite their popular image as modern-day Rambos, Green Berets are, in fact, a remarkably low-key and cerebral group. The average age in John's team is 33. All have the rank of sergeant or higher. Many have college degrees. Each is trained in a particular specialty: communications, engineering, intelligence, weapons or medicine. All undergo extensive language and cultural training.
"Our mission is not necessarily to outfight the enemy, although we can do that if we have to. We would rather outthink them. We're on our own out here, so you don't want to get in a fight if you don't have to," said J.J., the team's intelligence sergeant.
The first two teams of Green Berets from the 5th Special Forces Group, based at Fort Campbell, Ky., surreptitiously entered Afghanistan by helicopter on Oct. 20 from a base in a neighboring country. (Military reporting guidelines do not allow the country to be named). John's team expected to enter Afghanistan the same way a day or two later. But for five straight nights, the group's Tiger 03 team was held back by winds, freezing rain and low visibility.
When the weather finally cleared, the team reached the drop zone outside Dasht-e Qaleh, a mud-walled town near the Tajikistan border. The town was one of the last lines of defense in northern Afghanistan for the Northern Alliance, which was fighting to overthrow the hard-line Taliban militia that had controlled most of the country for five years.
The team's first challenge was to build confidence among the Afghan soldiers and commanders who controlled the front lines. It may have been their toughest task.
Because Tiger 03 trains primarily for missions in the Middle East, all its members speak fluent or passable Arabic. But none speak Dari, the predominant language in northern Afghanistan. Nor did any of the Northern Alliance troops who met John's team at the landing zone speak English.
Through gestures and pantomime, John's team was put in touch with a local go-between, who took them to a house owned by a local Afghan commander. They stayed there for the next several weeks.
"That was a nice surprise. We thought we'd be living on the ground," said Mark, one of the team's two engineering specialists. But finding a local interpreter who was trusted enough to live and work with the Americans and serve as a go-between with local leaders would take several weeks.
Tiger 03's primary mission was to direct airstrikes against the Taliban's front lines. The Northern Alliance had been pushed back to a small corner of northeastern Afghanistan by the mainly ethnic Afghan Taliban and by al-Qaeda fighters from other Muslim countries who were in Afghanistan to support Osama bin Laden.
Team members said local Afghan commanders appeared deeply skeptical about the U.S.-led bombing campaign, which initially focused on targets in the Taliban rear areas. Doubting the Americans' ability to hit targets on the front lines without striking nearby Northern Alliance soldiers, the commanders seemed in no hurry to take the Americans to the front.
"We weren't really wanted," said Kevin. "We had to prove ourselves. (The Afghans) weren't really happy to see us until the first bombs hit."
On Oct. 28, a few days after their arrival, about half the team was driven in the back of the Northern Alliance's Russian-built trucks to a hill overlooking the deserted town of Zard Kammar. From there they could see Taliban defensive positions on a hill about a mile away. They were guarding the approaches to a broad valley that led southward to Kunduz, the Taliban's main stronghold in the north.
John's team set up its equipment — laser-range finders, target designators, powerful telescopes and radios — in a deep trench along the crest of the hill and began calling in airstrikes. The first cluster of bombs missed the target. Then a B-52 flying at nearly 20,000 feet dropped a load of 2,000-pound bombs that landed squarely on the Taliban positions.
The impact "lifted the whole top of the hill two feet in the air," Kevin said, hurling Taliban soldiers out of their trenches and bunkers and spilling bodies down the front of the hill.
The first hit quickly changed attitudes toward the Americans, Mark said. "After that, people were lining up and clapping when we got back to the house. Slapping us on the back," he recalled. "It seemed like the more accurate the bombing, the better they fed us."
Fighting the war
For the next several weeks, John's team made daily treks to the nearby frontlines, fording the shallow Kowkchah River in an old Russian jeep bought locally for $7,000. Eventually, the Green Berets tore around the countryside in a fleet of eight Polaris all-terrain vehicles delivered by C-130 transports.
The team established four principal observation posts across from Taliban positions near Zard Kammar, moving from one to another as necessary. The Green Berets directed airstrikes from early in the morning until late afternoon and occasionally at night.
Among their ironclad rules: One team member had to see each target before a strike could be ordered. No guessing was allowed. Another rule: A second team member had to double-check all target coordinates transmitted to aircraft overhead.
Sometimes specific bombing missions were planned the night before. Others were ordered on the spur of the moment, as targets presented themselves. Kevin said the missions and reaction time depended on the number and type of planes available at any given time.
Navy F-14 and F/A-18 fighters, for example, could hit tanks and bunkers because of the precision guided munitions they carried. But because they had to fly so far from carriers in the Indian Ocean, they were rarely able to stay over the target for more than 10 minutes.
B-52s, on the other hand, were generally equipped with large numbers of "dumb" bombs that were less accurate, but could blanket trench areas and troop concentrations with fire. B-52s also carried some guided munitions and could circle overhead for hours, waiting for targets to be spotted.
Directing bombs on the battlefield, called close air support, is part art, part science, Kevin said. Tiger 03 controllers noticed that Taliban fighters would come out of their trenches to watch bombs falling on their comrades nearby. They began choreographing bomb runs so that one or two minutes after bombs started falling on one hill, they would begin landing on the spectators on the neighboring hill.
"A good (controller) can sequence planes and munitions to accomplish what you want," he said. "You bomb one side of a hill and push (Taliban fighters) in one direction, then bomb the next hill over and push guys the other way. Then, when they're all bunched up, you bring in more ... (planes) and drop right on top of them ... eventually they learn, but then you start doing something else."
Occasionally, the Green Berets took a more direct role in the fighting. Once, they assembled a Mark 19 grenade launcher to help them knock out a Taliban machine gun nest that had been peppering them with alarmingly accurate fire.
The team spent two days spraying the Taliban machine gun nest and nearby positions. Gunfire from that location was much reduced after that.
After two weeks of pounding, the hilltop overlooking Zard Kammar was a moonscape of bomb craters. Resistance all along the Taliban line was weakening. Northern Alliance forces attacked and the Taliban retreated down the valley to Kunduz, where they regrouped and set up new defenses. John's team also moved south and picked up where they left off, with day-long bombing raids.
Within days, the Taliban began surrendering and defecting, telling their captors and journalists that the rain of bombs left them no choice. "They killed many people. ... We are afraid to die," Taliban soldier Muhammad Shah told USA TODAY after he surrendered outside Kunduz in late November.
Mohammed Daoud, a Northern Alliance commander in Kunduz region, said, "We could not have won without the bombing."
Meanwhile, nearly a dozen other Special Forces teams had entered Afghanistan and were directing airstrikes and working with Northern Alliance forces elsewhere. By early December, most active resistance from the Taliban was over.
"We killed a lot of people here," Kevin said, with clear satisfaction. "I hate to sound gleeful, but they deserved it."
Though the fighting has all but stopped in northern Afghanistan, Tiger 03 remains at work.
On a recent day, several team members checked on the health of two boys injured when they were playing with an unexploded shell. Steve, the team medic from Bowie, Md., spent five hours in surgery in late December helping to repair the damage. Both are doing well.
The troops also looked at two Russian generators recently donated to the city of Dasht-e Qaleh, to see if they would be suitable for supplying electricity. If the generators pan out, it would be the first time the entire town had electrical power. The team also has arranged dozens of nighttime airdrops of food and blankets for local villages.
'See people smiling'
"It's been good to transition from a bombing campaign to more of a humanitarian and relief campaign — to see more people on the street, see people smiling for a change," said John, who has two brothers in the Special Forces. A tall, wiry man, John reads every day from his pocket-sized, green leather Bible and displays remarkable patience when dealing with local village leaders demanding more supplies.
Throughout the combat phase of the mission, the team members kept a carefully low profile. They grew beards and let their hair grow to better blend in with the population. They instructed friendly Northern Alliance soldiers to warn them if Western journalists were in the area.
Despite the beards and long hair, the soldiers are easily recognized by their desert camouflage pants, black fleece jackets, knit caps and high-tech assault rifles. They have moved into a more easily defended house with high walls. There are still many Taliban sympathizers in the region, so guard duty and defensive drills are taken seriously.
But a gaggle of children and teenagers and idle soldiers watches with rapt attention as the troops come and go through the main gate. Forays through the town and countryside on the noisy all-terrain vehicles have the look of an impromptu parade — particularly when Mark, pops wheelies to amuse the locals.
With the fighting winding down throughout Afghanistan and reports that U.S. forces may press the hunt for bin Laden in other countries, the troops are beginning to reflect on their time in Afghanistan. A nearby team was recently evacuated when the militia group they were working with began fighting against a rival militia.
"When we got here, we were expecting the worst," John said. "This area was full of Pakistanis and Arabs and Chechens and al-Qaeda, and we knew they would fight to the death rather than surrender. There are bandits and diseases and brutal weather. (So) we were prepared to lose our lives."
He added: "We're glad that didn't happen, obviously, and we're glad the mission was a success. But we're still on guard, 24-7. We're not out, yet."